When to treat, delay, or omit breast cancer therapy in the face of COVID-19


Nothing is business as usual during the COVID-19 pandemic, and that includes breast cancer therapy. That’s why two groups have released guidance documents on treating breast cancer patients during the pandemic.

A guidance on surgery, drug therapy, and radiotherapy was created by the COVID-19 Pandemic Breast Cancer Consortium. This guidance is set to be published in Breast Cancer Research and Treatment and can be downloaded from the American College of Surgeons website.

A group from Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSKCC) created a guidance document on radiotherapy for breast cancer patients, and that guidance was recently published in Advances in Radiation Oncology.

Prioritizing certain patients and treatments

As hospital beds and clinics fill with coronavirus-infected patients, oncologists must balance the need for timely therapy for their patients with the imperative to protect vulnerable, immunosuppressed patients from exposure and keep clinical resources as free as possible.

“As we’re taking care of breast cancer patients during this unprecedented pandemic, what we’re all trying to do is balance the most effective treatments for our patients against the risk of additional exposures, either from other patients [or] from being outside, and considerations about the safety of our staff,” said Steven Isakoff, MD, PhD, of Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston, who is an author of the COVID-19 Pandemic Breast Cancer Consortium guidance.

The consortium’s guidance recommends prioritizing treatment according to patient needs and the disease type and stage. The three basic categories for considering when to treat are:

  • Priority A: Patients who have immediately life-threatening conditions, are clinically unstable, or would experience a significant change in prognosis with even a short delay in treatment.
  • Priority B: Deferring treatment for a short time (6-12 weeks) would not impact overall outcomes in these patients.
  • Priority C: These patients are stable enough that treatment can be delayed for the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“The consortium highly recommends multidisciplinary discussion regarding priority for elective surgery and adjuvant treatments for your breast cancer patients,” the guidance authors wrote. “The COVID-19 pandemic may vary in severity over time, and these recommendations are subject to change with changing COVID-19 pandemic severity.”

For example, depending on local circumstances, the guidance recommends limiting immediate outpatient visits to patients with potentially unstable conditions such as infection or hematoma. Established patients with new problems or patients with a new diagnosis of noninvasive cancer might be managed with telemedicine visits, and patients who are on follow-up with no new issues or who have benign lesions might have their visits safely postponed.

Surgery and drug recommendations

High-priority surgical procedures include operative drainage of a breast abscess in a septic patient and evacuation of expanding hematoma in a hemodynamically unstable patient, according to the consortium guidance.

Other surgical situations are more nuanced. For example, for patients with triple-negative breast cancer (TNBC) or HER2-positive disease, the guidance recommends neoadjuvant chemotherapy or HER2-targeted chemotherapy in some cases. In other cases, institutions may proceed with surgery before chemotherapy, but “these decisions will depend on institutional resources and patient factors,” according to the authors.

The guidance states that chemotherapy and other drug treatments should not be delayed in patients with oncologic emergencies, such as febrile neutropenia, hypercalcemia, intolerable pain, symptomatic pleural effusions, or brain metastases.

In addition, patients with inflammatory breast cancer, TNBC, or HER2-positive breast cancer should receive neoadjuvant/adjuvant chemotherapy. Patients with metastatic disease that is likely to benefit from therapy should start chemotherapy, endocrine therapy, or targeted therapy. And patients who have already started neoadjuvant/adjuvant chemotherapy or oral adjuvant endocrine therapy should continue on these treatments.


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